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Simon Bridges’ memoir, ‘National Identity: Confessions of an Outsider’, illustrates that humans are more complicated than the categories we put them into. Brian Easton's review

Public Policy / opinion
Simon Bridges’ memoir, ‘National Identity: Confessions of an Outsider’, illustrates that humans are more complicated than the categories we put them into. Brian Easton's review
Simon Bridges book cover

This is a re-post of an article originally published on It is here with permission.

In his opening chapter Simon Bridges reports:

“I was as crook as a dog. Feverish. I rarely went to a doctor but I needed to. ... Into the doctor’s surgery I went – not my usual one ... I hadn’t shaved since being unwell and was in a black hoodie .... Finally the ... doctor enters the waiting room. He was South African, and he looked me up and down. After that, he was pretty rude. He wasn’t interested in my symptoms and made a comment I was wasting his time. I was affronted. ... didn’t he know who I was? ... The youngest Crown prosecutor in the country ... And then it dawned on me. He was treating me like a bloody Māori. ... The medical practice covered a low decile, high Māori population. I wasn’t suited and booted and clean shaven. I didn’t have my business card with my titles and string of degrees. The doctor had stereotyped me. Young, unshaven, hoodie, brown, Māori.“

Bridges had a Māori great-grandparent so he is one eighth Māori by descent. But he was brought up largely unaware of his Māori heritage even if, as the anecdote shows, he could not escape it. In fact he has described exactly the experience which many young Māori have in the justice system, according to a report by the Ministry of Justice; incremental judgements based on stereotypes about Māori which lead down a path to criminal records and poor health. (See Chapter 15 in my Heke Tangata.)

Bridges’ ambiguity about his status is common. About half of those of Māori descent respond that they are also Pakeha (or some such) in the Population Census ethnicity question. There is a ‘descent’ question and also an ‘ethnicity’ question in the Census. The first is a question of fact (hence its relevance for electoral purposes), the second is a question of self-categorisation; we know that many New Zealanders vary their ethnicity in different circumstances. Moreover, there is almost certainly no one alive today who is of sole-Māori descent. Anyone is absolutely entitled to say they are of sole-Māori ethnicity, but we are not entitled to take everyone of Māori descent as sole Māori; we insult many when we re-categorise them from their self-definition.

Unfortunately, our statistical definitions are misleading. The convention is that if one is of Māori descent or says that Māori is one of their ethnicities they are classified as ‘Māori’. Yet about half of them say their ethnicity is more complex than ‘sole Māori’. When we report statistics for Māori we are, in effect, using a race (i.e. descent) definition, something we need to be very cautious about. It is equally cavalier to generalise about Māori as if they are a homogenous group with a unified view. (Equally true about most other categories, including economists.) Observe that the statistical quirk not only gives the impression of homogeneity but exaggerates the size of the Māori category for most purposes.

Bridges provides a nice account of his particular struggle: ‘Over time I began to feel I was too Māori to be Pakeha and too Pakeha to be Māori. Not a proper one at least.’ He also makes the sobering point that while the lazy assume that Māori mainly vote Labour, they are referring only to those enrolled in the Māori Seats. About half of those of Māori descent choose to enrol in General Seats and a higher proportion of them vote National.

There is another aspect to that opening quotation, for underlying the doctor’s antipathy appears to be a class concern. Bridges is not only troubled about his ethnicity but also his class, reminding us again about the complexity of the notion. If I had to summarise his position, it was ‘aspiring working class’ but that does not quite capture it. His chapter on entering law is illustrative when it describes the Westie struggling with the class transition, for he has neither family connections to law nor the background knowledge of how to behave (he was a quick learner). Those with the background are usually unaware of this superior advantage. (If you are not sure of this, think of how many people you know of modest ability who hold positions arising from their family connections.)

The standard response is that there is high social mobility in New Zealand. (It is less clear whether it is higher than in many other countries, although I will hazard the hypothesis that our social mobility is lower today than it was in the past. There are a number of factors here. Some are discussed in Not in Narrow Seas; a recent one, which Bridges repeatedly acknowledges, is that high income inequality damages opportunity for those at the bottom.)

Bridges also thinks the criticism of his Westie accent is in fact class snobbery. Surely he cannot be right, can he? Us, class snobs?

Some of the other chapters in National Identity are not as riveting as the ones already mentioned although I found the one explaining the ambiguities of his nationality as instructive as those on ethnicity and class.

I conclude with a discussion of why I read his book. Here was a man who joined the National Party at 16 from a limited background, got to its highest position of leading the party at 42 and walked away at 46. I was not so interested in the party politics – he is bitter about some of the things which happened to him. My interest was the man – part Māori, part working class, very able. Why National? The cover says ‘it is not a political memoir’ and there is not as much as I hoped of his view of National’s philosophy (despite some superficial commentators saying it was a manifesto for another leadership bid). Here is my take.

There are a couple of themes which led the sixteen-year-old to join National. Suppose he was working class. The ambiguity hardly matters, what was key was that he was aspiring; he would not be the only National Party leader with aspirations which involved class mobility. But second, his positions on social issues are conservative (which was a factor in his loss of the leadership, for National is far more torn on the conservative-liberal social dimension than Labour). Perhaps it is not so surprising, given his father was a Baptist minister. Is that enough to explain the sign-up?

Add that sixteen-year-olds often take positions which are a bit quirky, except this one has stuck to his. One wonders if the forty-six-year-old has modified his adolescent position. I expect him to continue to vote National especially if Labour continues it with its lamentable record on social mobility. He seems to have learned there is a life outside politics.

If you don’t mind connecting with a bloke who is part Māori, from the working class, of high ability, a well-read politician and who can be pleasantly self-deprecating you would probably enjoy the experience of meeting him, even if your positions on social issues are very different from his. He describes himself as a ‘compassionate conservative’ explicitly discussed his theistic religious philosophy. If you don’t meet him personally, you can still enjoy his book.

Brian Easton, an independent scholar, is an economist, social statistician, public policy analyst and historian. He was the Listener economic columnist from 1978 to 2014. This is a re-post of an article originally published on It is here with permission.

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‘Over time I began to feel I was too Māori to be Pakeha and too Pakeha to be Māori. Not a proper one at least.’ 


I know the feeling


I know Simon & have had the pleasure of voting for him on many occasions. I remember the first time I met him, after Bob Clarkson had said he wasn't running again, he shook my hand at the Tauranga Club & I thought, boy you're a bit young aren't you? But he was smart, which I learned about over time & even got to worship alongside him & his family, which won't happen for a while now. I never thought of him as part Maori even though it is obvious when you know. There are many people in New Zealand of colour. It doesn't matter to me any more. That's just the way it is. A lot of them work bloody hard. A lot of them don't. But you can say that about us Pakeha as well. Laziness is not defined by the colour of your skin. I wish him & Natalie & family all the very best for the future, wherever that may be. We'll miss him. He was a very good MP & I only hope we can get another one of similar character. And soon.


I am Pakeha but there are Maori relatives on both sides of my family tree. All my New Zealand  European ancestors, apart from one who is early 20th century, go back to the mid-19th century. There are Maori second cousins on my mothers side who identify wholly with Pakeha.

And there is Maori by marriage on my father's side going back a few generations:  I can remember in the late 1950s when the shops closed from Friday night to Monday morning and families were more closely knit together than the are today, we as a family used to visit relatives far and near on a Sunday afternoon, as many people did.  The hosts used to put on a self-made spread of delicious cakes, sandwiches, and scones made of real butter and not the rat-poison cooking oils they use today. 

On some of these gatherings a Maori gentleman attended who was treated with the utmost respect; he was Harry Delamore Barter Dansey (Barter was the pakeha connection) a Maori historian and commentator on Maori affairs for the then Auckland Star newspaper, and he was appointed the second  NZ race relations conciliator.  He fitted in perfectly with the rest of my pakeha relatives as they chatted from their chairs lining the walls of the living room while the children took round a continuous supply of edible goodies. 

I had a few Maori friends during my highschool years and played rugby with a few.  I never felt that Maori were any different than any of my pakeha friends.  A couple were really good friends but over the years I have lost contact with them just as I have lost contact with most of my pakeha friends from those days.

Something has definitely changed between those days and now and I suspect it has a lot to do with wealth inequality with pakeha exclusively dominating one end of the wealth continuum and Maori the other end.



How do you know the doctor was treating you like a Maori? Did they say? Maybe they where treating you like an slob with no self respect. Are you stereotyping them into being racist because you are part Maori?

Unfortunately people do base their opinions of you on appearance, its called first impressions. The fact that it had not happened before implies in general that you are do not get discriminated against because of who you are but how you present yourself. As a non-maori slob I can attest to being stopped and searched 2 times within 5 minutes at customs.

This is flawed logic, Assumption Maori are discriminated against, I have been treated badly therefore I must be because I am Maori. Assumption White Men aren't discriminated against I was treated badly it must be because of some other reason. There is no way to disprove this assumption since you only take account of positive cases, therefore it is logically flawed.


Brian Easton hits a certain nail on the head when he talks of descent versus self-categorisation. If the census uses " descent" to establish the Maori population, which I believe is about 17% of our total population, then the proportion of our population represented by the "self-categorised" must be considerably less. This rather makes a nonsense of the concept of co- governance as promoted by the present government. For what its worth, my wife's and my grandparents were all typical Anglo-Irish, yet of the 100 or so direct and indirect descendants fully 60 now have some Maori ancestry, yet none choose to identify as Maori. If this trend is reflected in the wider population and continues for a few more generations there will be no point in attempting to differentiate between Maori and non-Maori.


He grew up in a very stable middle class setting and family, not really 'blue collar' working class as we'd traditionally think of it. In those days, of course, that meant a good family home on typical Kiwi salaries. 

He always had a desire for power. Contemporaries have attested to that.